Free Throw Guy: Maybe It Works
His antics may be loathed by many, but check the stats
Friday, April 1, 2011
PORTLAND — You’re fewer than 10 words into this column and are already annoyed.
Calkins, please don’t write it.
You have an inexplicable compulsion to yell, “Dude, sit down!”
Seriously, it will only encourage him.
As a Trail Blazers devotee, you find him more irritating than Gilbert Gottfried’s vuvuzela impression. Just seeing his picture above makes you cringe with antagonism.
Perhaps that’s why fans, reporters and just about everyone within earshot had this to say to me upon overhearing some questions last week: Matt, please tell me you’re not doing a story on Free Throw Guy.
Oh, I’m doing a story on Free Throw Guy. And for darn good reason.
Rob Ems is a 27-year-old stock trader who has been a Blazers season-ticket holder since 2006. He graduated from Portland State with a political science degree and had aspirations of becoming a lobbyist.
Probably wise that he ended up taking a different career route, though. He has, after all, managed to turn most of the Rose Garden against him.
Whenever Portland opponents head to the line to take foul shots in the second half, Ems rises from his seat six rows behind the basket, makes a kind of epileptic, “wax-on, wax-off”-type motion, then shouts taunts in an attempt to distract the shooter.
Last year, Amare Stoudemire grew so agitated with Ems’ barbs that he told him off and got hit with a technical foul. Even so, the hometown fans aren’t fans.
“He’s horrible,” said Portland resident Jesse Lancaster from the Rose Garden concourse.
“The guy’s a dork,” added Blazers supporter Diallo Gastin.
And then there was Jack Dillon, who sits next to Ems and said this when asked about his antics: “Do you want me to be supportive or honest?”
The only two free throws Ems has missed in the past two years came when he was alerting security guards to the fans who were physically threatening him. Last year, his girlfriend broke up with him after incessantly fielding questions like, “Why are you with that crazy guy?”
A couple months ago, national NBA blogger J.E. Skeets hailed Ems as “hilarious” on Twitter; but a few minutes later, after receiving an avalanche of feedback, Skeets followed with a tweet reading, “Well, then, apparently 99% my followers detest ‘Free Throw Guy.’ ”
But if anyone should know how to block out the noise, it’s Ems. So he keeps plugging away — producing results that may end up getting him free tickets for life.
More on the numbers in a second. First, a little background.
• • •
Contrary to popular thought, Ems did not give himself his nickname. He said he was attending an event toward the end of the 2007-08 season, when Mattress World owner Sheri Heiner spotted him and said “I know you. You’re that free throw guy.”
If true, that’s the day Portland changed forever.
Instead of picking and choosing his spots for free-throw foiling, Ems was now committed to every foul shot. He made “Free Throw Guy” T-shirts for himself and later customized them for all 29 Blazers opponents. He also spends at least an hour prepping before each home game — studying stat sheets, dreaming up disses, and rounding up props — all in an effort to uphold his difference-making dogma.
“There’s an overall theory or belief that one fan will never be able to affect the outcome of an event, excluding something like the (Steve Bartman) catch at the Cubs game,” said Ems, a Portland native. “If you think of football, the fans are way back, the field-goal kicker can’t see them. In baseball, they’re way back, too, and in hockey there’s glass. But this is the one opportunity where I’m close, everybody is still and he has to look in my direction. Maybe sometimes I’m in their head a little bit.”
If you’re thinking Ems should really be wearing customized “Free Throw Guy” straitjackets, that’s a bit of a misread. His code includes never insulting players on a personal level or shouting anything inappropriate for a child’s ears.
Instead, he’ll slap on a pair of Amare Stoudemire goggles and tell him his ego writes checks his body can’t cash. Or, he’ll sing “O Canada” when Steve Nash is at the line. Or, if Richard Jefferson is telling him to zip it, he’ll respond, “I’d listen if you were President Jefferson, but you’re not. You’re not even Richard Pryor!”
Jefferson doesn’t so much recall that moment.
“That probably meant a lot more to him than it did to me. A lot of people think they’re clever or are the first person to say something,” the Spurs forward said. “The thing people have to understand is, we’ve been playing in front of hostile crowds since we were 16, 18 years old. When I played against UCLA at Pauley Pavilion, those banners were more intimidating than any fan.
“So now you’re going to tell me that at 30 years old, someone’s going to throw me off because he’s making a bunch of noise?”
Actually, he just may be.
• • •
Early last month, I asked the Blazers PR staff if they could get stats comparing opponents’ free-throw percentage in the first half at the Rose Garden to that of the second. After a call to the Elias Sports Bureau, the results came in as follows: 76.1 percent in the first half (when not facing Free Throw Guy), and 73.1 percent in the second half (when facing Free Throw Guy). Sounds about right. Players are fatigued in the final two quarters and there’s a lot more at stake.
But out of curiosity, I called Elias myself and asked for a league-wide comparison. Turns out that this year, teams actually shoot free throws 0.1 percent better in the second half.
Still, I had to factor in the Jazz, the sole team Portland hosted this year that started the game attacking the Blazers’ bench-side basket. Plus, there had been five games at the Rose Garden since I last checked the numbers.
So what did the updated data look like? Well, heading into tonight’s game vs. the Thunder, Blazers opponents shoot 78 percent from the line when not facing Free Throw Guy, and 72 percent when facing him. Yes, that’s a 6 percent difference.
Has to be a fluke. So I called Elias again. Asked for the 2009-10 numbers. Opponents in the first half: 75.8 percent. Second half: 71.5 percent. That’s right, teams shot 4.3 percent worse against Free Throw Guy.
Now I was starting to believe. Six percent this year? Four percent last year? And teams league-wide are shooting as well in the second half as they are the first?
“What could possibly be distracting these guys besides Free Throw Guy?” I thought.
Then I remembered Paul Allen’s wardrobe. Yikes. Had to make one more call.
At this point, I’m starting to annoy Elias Free Throw Guy style, so I request just one more year — 2005-2006, the season before Ems started showing up.
Ready? Opponents in the first half at the Rose Garden: 76.0 percent. Opponents in the second half... 76.1 percent.
Tell me that’s not significant. Tell me that doesn’t at least make you wonder.
I’m not saying Ems having an impact goes beyond all reasonable doubt, but he definitely wins the civil trial.
Maybe that’s why Blazers general manager Rich Cho went up and shook his hand one night and thanked him for his support. Maybe that’s why Marcus Camby gives him an air high-five whenever an opponent misses from the stripe.
Maybe that’s why Wesley Matthews pulled him out of an autograph line to take a picture, or why Patty Mills says he loves Free Throw Guy, or why Nicolas Batum truly believes Ems is helping, to the point that he implored me not to reveal the statistics so that opponents don’t start the game going the other direction.
“That’s one other thing,” Ems said. “If the players or anybody with the Blazers didn’t like it, I would stop.”
And yet, you continue to jeer.
You, Mindy from the concourse, who didn’t want to reveal her last name but said “he’s starting to become a symbol at the games and I don’t like that.”
You, Blazers enthusiast Lee Gruber, who asserted that when it comes to Ems, “I’m not a fan at all.”
You, random voice a few aisles behind behind press row, who bellowed “you suck Free Throw Guy!” when the Wizards’ Yi Jianlian sank his first attempt last week, and “it wasn’t even you!” when he clanked the second.
Shoots and misses bringing boos and hisses. Cold, people. Cold.
But maybe you can make it up to him, because Free Throw Guy has a dream.
Yes, Rob Ems, who didn’t play high school ball because his coach thought he was “a little intense,” awaits his eternal moment.
Free Throw Guy, girlfriend-less but ripe with passion, has a vision for immortality.
He told me he imagines staring down a star at the end of regulation with the game on the line. But we’re not talking about any ho-hum free throw here, this is a technical. Mano y Mano. Winner take all.
“Oh, I’d totally feel the pressure,” Ems said. “But I’d also have that focus like ‘I’m gonna get you.’”
So will you have his back? Will you stand with the man who never sits — who’s plowed through hardship in a very Blazer-esque fashion all year long?
If so, step up quickly, because he doesn’t plan on being there forever.
“As soon as we win the championship, that will be the end of Free Throw Guy,” Ems said.
Hey, talk about an incentive.
Matt Calkins is the Trail Blazers beat writer for The Columbian. He can be contacted at 360-735-4528 or email email@example.com